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Minnesota approves state money for bird flu response

ST. PAUL -- State money is en route to immediate and long-range needs to fight avian flu that has resulted in more than 9 million turkey and chicken deaths in 23 Minnesota counties.

Minnesota legislators early Saturday approved spending $23 million for several programs responding to bird flu and nearly $27 million for University of Minnesota poultry testing facilities. Federal funds also help farmers recover from euthanizing turkeys in flocks hit by bird flu.

"The support that we have had from public officials ... has been tremendous," said Steve Olson, who represents Minnesota and other Midwestern poultry producers. "Our growers have noticed that."

An immediate benefit for farmers with flocks affected by the flu will be $10 million in no-interest loans.

"Minnesota’s poultry farmers have been hit hard by this disease and many will struggle to get back in business," Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson said. "These disaster loans will help them, in part, rebuild their operations and revitalize their industry."

The state Rural Finance Authority is offering the loan assistance through farmers' normal lenders. The no-interest loans can be up to 45 percent of money a farmer needs. The rest would come from regular lenders, who will charge interest.

The loans may be up to $200,000 and last up to 10 years.

Olson said he expects farmers to especially benefit from the money as they try to increase biosecurity, finding ways to keep the flu virus out of their barns.

Even before the H5N2 flu that spread quickly and makes birds sicker than other forms of flu hit this spring, some farmers were looking to increase biosecurity, such replacing fans to keep them from blowing the virus into barns. Those changes could cost $30,000 a barn, and there are about 1,000 barns in the state, Olson said.

Farmers may need to pay twice that to install air filters to do a better job of keeping the air clean, Olson added.

Poultry farmers also received $1 million to help repay farmers for dead birds, but Olson said that is a fairly small amount. The federal government pays farmers for every bird they must euthanize, but they receive nothing for birds that die from the flu.

Some of the state money will be spent on equipment to euthanize birds.

"We had a number of flocks that went positive at about the same time, so we got behind on our depopulating," Olson said. "That meant the virus was alive on those farmers longer."

Birds are euthanized by covering them with foam, and equipment to be bought will include foam sprayers.

State money also is headed to farmers' mental health needs. A mental health team created for the Aug. 1, 2007, Interstate 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis is available to help farmers whose flocks were affected by bird flu.

Some money is for state workers responding to the agriculture disaster.

Two types of university laboratories will be updated, but unlike loans that are available immediately, the facilities will take more than two years to upgrade.

"The $18 million investment in our St. Paul campus will replace two obsolete labs with a state-of-the-art bio-containment facility," University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said.

Another $8.5 million will go to improve a university facility in Willmar, in the heart of turkey country.

Every flock is tested for disease before going to market, one of the 38-year-old Willmar lab's functions. The new funds will allow it to do more tests on diseases like the one now affecting poultry.

"This testing facility will create jobs in our community and will assist health officials in their efforts to quickly test poultry and other animals," Rep. Dave Baker, R-Willmar, said.

State officials, farmers and processors hope another pot of state money never is used.

The Legislature approved extending unemployment benefits to poultry workers 13 weeks longer than the standard 26 weeks.

Director Rick Caligiuri of the unemployment insurance program said the state has seen few unemployment claims from the poultry industry. So far, a couple hundred workers were laid off in two processing plants, accounting for the unemployment benefit requests that have come in.

However, farm workers have remained busy euthanizing and cleaning barns. And in recent days, some of the farmers whose flocks were first hit by the flu are beginning to put birds back in their poultry barns.

Caligiuri, with more than 30 years in the department, said he does not recall another unemployment benefit extension for agriculture workers, although extensions have been granted in the airline, mining and wood products industries.

***

Bird flu update

  • The latest case of bird flu was reported June 5
  • More than 9 million Minnesota turkeys and chickens have died due to the flu this year
  • More than 47 million turkeys and chickens have died in the United States this year
  • 220 farms have been affected across the United States, nearly half in Minnesota
  • The first Minnesota farms affected in March have euthanized birds, cleaned up and are putting new birds in their barns

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.
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